Why don’t we have more leaders?

So, we continue our series on Leadership. 

In the first post, we defined Leadership as the skill of power to bring individuals together towards a vision. We defined different forms of leadership and argued that the best leadership power involves earning the respect of your followers rather than only relying on delegated power derived from an organizational position.

In the second post, we differentiated leadership from management. Both involve power over a group of people. We used Kotter’s distinction that managers deal with complexity, on organization and optimization. Leaders, on the other hand, deal with change. 

In this third post, we will explore the question, why is leadership so hard? Why don’t we have more ethical leaders?

Talking about my experience at the Monastic Academy, a lot of people who would be attracted to hundreds of hours of silent meditation practice in rural Vermont, do not want to take full responsibility for power. To many of us, we have seen too many people of power who are unwise, uncaring. It almost seems like power equals harm. 

If we start with the premise that humans are innately selfish creatures then too much power must lead to harm and abuse of power. Therefore, there has been a movement towards decentralization, distributing power all the way back to communism and beyond. We say, “everyone is equal. We don’t need leaders.” We want to disempower traditional leaders and systems to more fairly and equally distribute power. Taken to the extreme, it is to remove the question of power altogether. We do not want to cause harm. So, it seems the best way to achieve this end would be for no one to have power over anyone else.

But, the truth is there is always power dynamic. Pretending otherwise is only to push power into the shadows. 

While this aim to distribute and empower everyone is a noble goal and aim, the way to get there requires leadership. Thereby requires power.

We need to acknowledge development is real, development exists. People are at different developmental maturations. I hold the Metamodern idea that those who are more trustworthy ought to take on power in order to help less trustworthy people to become more trustworthy and thereby more empowered. 

At MAPLE, we have a hierarchical system of power. New apprentices just starting out are in terms of explicit power at the bottom of the hierarchy. They hold little sway in organizational decision making such as who should we accept for residency? How will we change the schedule? What amount of time will we devote to a workshop, if any at all?

But as apprentices near the end of their terms, we give them increasingly more responsibilities and thereby more power in their roles. Furthermore, residents have increasing roles and responsibilities and thereby more power in shaping the community culture and structures.

To us, this is how it ought to be. As a person matures in their wisdom and virtue, in their understanding and capacity to deal with challenges, they are given increasing complex roles of  power. With that increased power, their edge in wisdom and virtue is pushed even more. And so the cycle continues. Eventually, a resident may become a Director, a Teacher and be ultimately responsible without anyone else to fallback on.

I would argue that this queasy feeling with power means that those who don’t have these fears and worries end up taking all the power. And those with love and wisdom end up powerless. Because leadership and power are skills, practicable skills one can get better at. To step away from power and always hope that simply believing or saying nice things is enough for others with the real power to change is a delusion, is to disempower one’s self.

Thus, we come to one answer of why we do not have more ethical leaders.

Partly, it is because the zeitgeist among many spiritual folks is against the idea of leadership and power in the first place. But, why is there this aversion to leadership and power?

Because, to be a leader means to not have anyone else to fall back on. It is to develop into an adult. Particularly if you are trying to be an ethical, good leader. A leader who does right by your followers and yourself and the world. 

To be a leader with power means to sit at the crossroads of the unknown where important decisions must be made. Even indecision is still a decision with consequences. Leadership is to bear that responsibility of consequences and impact on others, on potential harm, of possibly unfulfilled good. When no one knows what is correct, when every direction has benefits and costs. Yet, as the leader, a direction must be made even if it is choosing no direction. That terrible burden of command must be accepted, embraced. For every moment is another leader movement, is another opportunity.

We don’t have more ethical leaders because many of us training to be ethical are more afraid of being perceived as harmful than we care about doing good. Because communities are unwilling or unable to support developing leaders to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. All of us seek out this unicorn perfect leader who makes no mistakes and thereby causes no harm. Due to this standard, many of us would rather avoid the burden of leadership, burden of power. 

Consider, Major Winters again talking about his leadership role:

Combat had made me tense, particularly since my decisions now meant life or death to the members of my command.  Commanding soldiers in combat requires a personal detachment from the men themselves. In a sense, command is the loneliest job in the world.

Beyond Band of Brothers

What sane person wants to feel the burden of juggling the lives of others? Fellow brothers in arms that we are deep friends with? Knowing to make a decision is going to involve the potential death of the people you are responsible for? 

There are only three options then. Either you (A) stop trying to care, become numb (this is most of the unethical leadership in the world today) (B) disempower yourself and do not be a leader, or (C) as Winters did, embrace the burden of caring and fulfilling the mission.

Let’s look to Martin Luther King Jr. addressing the need for power and why we shy from it:

…Now another basic challenge is to discover how to organize our strength in to economic and political power. Now no one can deny that the Negro is in dire need of this kind of legitimate power. Indeed, one of the great problems that the Negro confronts is his lack of power. From the old plantations of the South to the newer ghettos of the North, the Negro has been confined to a life of voicelessness (That’s true) and powerlessness. (So true) Stripped of the right to make decisions concerning his life and destiny he has been subject to the authoritarian and sometimes whimsical decisions of the white power structure. The plantation and the ghetto were created by those who had power, both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. Now the problem of transforming the ghetto, therefore, is a problem of power, a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to the preserving of the status quo. Now, power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change. Walter Reuther defined power one day. He said, “Power is the ability of a labor union like UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say, ‘Yes’ when it wants to say ‘No.’ That’s power.”

Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. But there is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly.

You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused the philosopher Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love.

Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. (Yes) Power at its best [applause], power at its best is love (Yes) implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. (Speak) And this is what we must see as we move on.

Now what has happened is that we’ve had it wrong and mixed up in our country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power, and white Americans to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience. It is leading a few extremists today to advocate for Negroes the same destructive and conscienceless power that they have justly abhorred in whites. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times…


There’s a lack of wise, virtuous leaders. Too often we find wise, loving activists in the world devoid of power. They may have good ideas and good intentions, but ultimately, they achieve very little. Meanwhile, we find those with the most power often uncaring about the concerns of the wider world and other people. If these powerful people have to choose their personal profit versus protecting a rain forest, they will go for profit. 

To bring about the changes needed to bring peace and life, we need to bridge this gap. This is one of the great jobs of MAPLE in bringing leadership training integrating these three pieces of wisdom, love, and power. As MLK Jr. said, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.